The world is literally traveling with Terri Schiavo through the valley of the shadow of death. Never have the words of the Psalmist echoed more vividly than the drip-by-drip trip she has so publicly made over the last fifteen years. Even in Germany, where I live, her story and the debate it has engendered are making headlines across the continent. One thing we can all agree on, I hope, is that it never should have come to this. Thinking clearly about what can be learned may help us all.

This is not a case about an individual's choice. The grand American ideal of individualism is not at stake here. The one individual who has not had a say in these events is Terri herself. Of course, that is because she cannot speak. So others have spoken vociferously for her.

To a degree this is a case about family rights. One reason we are here is that the "family" has not spoken with one voice. The husband has argued that the compassionate thing to do is to let Terri's life run its natural course, although his other relationship does not exactly make it clear that he does so without his own concerns. The parents have argued they are willing to undertake the entire responsibility of her difficult, ongoing care.

This case shows how poorly, even awkwardly, both the state and the judiciary handle family matters. Perhaps it is time for us to consider what the best options are when there is no living will or corroborated oral testimony about what a person desired as they encounter the edge of life.

This case has made its way through virtually every level of legal reflection, but have the ethics of the situation been lost in the legalities of who speaks for Terri? Is there a way out of this dilemma? What of the other thousands who find themselves in such a circumstance? In our legal system we have a presumption of innocence until guilt is established. Why not have a presumption for life built into our legal system? I am not speaking of keeping people alive artificially when their life condition is clearly, completely in the process of deteriorating. I am speaking of those cases, like this one, where life and death are in a distinct holding pattern.

I realize that it is not a perfect solution. It still will leave the decision with someone else in cases where a living will is missing and the person cannot speak. But in Terri's case my argument is: where family members disagree, those who desire that the patient live must be willing and responsible to assume the care. This would only apply in cases where a written living will is missing.

This suggestion also raises another question. For most legal scenarios, a bond between a husband and wife is sacred, forming a distinct unit, and should not to be broken. However, in the Schiavo case, the husband clearly has moved on in his life with a new relationship, to a degree losing the right to speak uniquely for his mute wife. In fact, the issue of motive here could be at play in his response. However, I would argue that the proposal covers all possible combinations and should apply whether or not the husband might have extenuating circumstances.

First, if the husband himself wishes to pursue the care, no legal precedents are violated. If he does not, then responsibility can shift under a presumption for life, which in this unique case would go beyond the normal husband-wife bond, and only because the person most impacted by the decision cannot speak.

In other words, this limitation is not an attempt to redefine marriage or to break that union, but to make sure that the presumption remains towards life where care for it, in whatever from it possesses exists. It is a higher form of protecting individual rights in cases where that individual cannot speak. In some cases, life may not be preserved where no one wishes to assume care. However, I would argue it is clearly a better option than what currently exists under the law.

How would this have played out in the current scenario? In the Schiavo case, the parents were willing to undertake the care and absolve the husband of any social obligations, Let the presumption be for life, as long as family members wish to undertake the responsibility for the difficulty of care. After all, they will bear the burden of the choice before God.

As one who has counseled even family members in such a situation, I know what pain loved ones experience as they agonize over a decision about prolonging life in desperate circumstances. Surely it is better if people who care for the silenced life make such decisions than people who never met Terri Schiavo. This will keep the government and the justices out of our bedrooms, hospital rooms, and morgues, other than to move to establish the most basic of principles in line with commitments in our social and legal process that have always made the protection and honoring of life a priority.

Maybe the shadow of Terri Schiavo's death will help us see the way clear to make this issue one that a family, even a divided one, makes before God and their own conscience. And may we all do it in a way that honors the silent one and that lessens the likelihood of other family members taking this decision to court.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus